A little over a week past his first journey into the Spirit Wild, Elias Rodham was going through some changes of his own. He had not been overweight, since his job was to lead hikes in the desert (supplemented by a small woodcarving business he had on the side), but he had certainly been soft since his only real exercise was long walks with light gear. Now he went running with the pack every evening, always with Uma and Tajo, usually with Carter and Willy as well. Every other night, he would lift weights at the gym which Carter owned and where Willy worked. The changes were slight, shy of two weeks in, but noticeable thanks to the intensity of his training regimen.
All in all, he was happier; living somehow felt more alive, everything seemed more vivid even when he wasn’t in the Wild. The joie de vivre he seemed to have lost during his teenage years, gradually replaced by the resigned boredom of adulthood, was back with a vengeance.
Now it was Thursday, the thirty-first of May. The Moon was gibbous, Rufio’s moon, soon to be handed down to Elias. Tonight, in fact; and then Elias would be going through changes of another kind entirely.
“All right, Elias,” Carter began, “You take Rufio in your truck. The rest of us will be on foot.”
“Where am I going,” Elias asked.
“Head toward the meteor crater – you know it?”
“I do,” Elias replied with a nod.
“OK, about a mile out, there’s a left turn, and past that, a trail that forks off and goes straight when the road curves left. You follow that trail, and park at the next turn. You’ll be just West of the crater, we’ll come find you.”
“All right, and then what?”
“This is another one of those things,” Uma said with a chuckle, “That’s easier to show than tell.”
“Be more cryptic, why don’t you,” Elias replied.
“For now,” Uma said, “It’ll do to say that when you ‘joined’ us the other day, that was really only halfway. The easy half, at that. Tonight’s the night we really bring you into the fold. You’ll be able to ask all the questions you want.”
“Fair enough,” Elias said as he shrugged. “So I take 40 back East, head down the other Meteor Crater Road, then take the trail fork to the right when the road goes left and park at the next turn. Yeah?”
“You got it,” Carter says with a nod. “We’re gonna get going. See you there.”
The four set off, and Elias helps Rufio to his truck. The man is wasting away by the day – he was almost healthy-looking the day Elias met him, save for the wound in his chest, but now was thin and flabby, barely able to even walk on his own.
They pass the drive in silence, which suits them both: Elias feels awkward talking to the guy he’s apparently about to replace, and Rufio is almost too weak to speak.
Elias finds the rendezvous point without too much trouble, and turns his truck around before shutting it down to wait for the others. The desert night is cool, the sky beautiful. With Winslow to the East and Flagstaff to the West, it’s not the most pristine of stargazing sites – but even so, they are far enough away from the cities to see plenty. He stares out into the Milky Way and has time enough to lose track of it before the rest of the group shows up.
He hears them from a ways off, their shoes pounding the earth, their breaths deep and even. He knew Uma was in good shape before meeting her “friends,” he could tell that just by looking at her, but he had a feeling these folks could run a marathon and call it a slow day. Once, he had seen a troupe of Japanese drummers, Ondekoza, perform some truly impressive drumming: he had never thought that simple drumming could be so demanding, but they were all in amazing shape. He’d heard tell that they had once run the Boston Marathon and then gone right into a set, and after he’d seen them perform, he believed it.
Carter nodded to the two of them as the foursome neared and stopped. Rufio got out of the truck and shut the door behind him, his breathing labored with the effort.
“Uma, bring him Inside. Rufio, can you manage?”
Rufio nodded his head in reply.
“OK, let’s go.”
Elias watched in amazement as the four other men disappeared from sight: they closed their eyes, bowed their heads, then seemed to simply fade away from the world like shadows. Uma took his hands in hers, closed her eyes, and brought him Inside with the rest of them.
When Elias opened his eyes, he saw something stunning to the East. Over the crater, there floated an enormous serpent, blazing a trail of spectral fire as it twisted and flowed through the air.
“What… on Earth… is that?”
“That,” Uma said with a nod, “Is our Father Dragon.”
“If that’s your father,” he mused, “Then who’s your mother?”
“Come on,” she said, “We’ll walk as we talk. We’re still almost half a mile from the crater.” She let go one of his hands, and they set off to the East.
“Rufio,” Carter asked.
“I got this,” Rufio said, his voice strained.
“Right on,” Carter said with a nod, and the four other men followed after Uma and Elias, Carter striding quickly to the lead.
“We are children of the Moon,” Uma said. “Long ago, when gods walked the Earth, they fought among themselves for supremacy. Each sought to rule over all humanity, but they got in each other’s way. So, to tip the scales in their favor, they would give power to us mortals from time to time.”
“So,” Elias interrupted, “You guys are soldiers in some war between gods?”
“No,” Uma answered, “Not us. But our predecessors were, once. The gods are long gone now, but their legacy lives on in us.” She paused, but Elias did not ask another question. “The Virgin Moon descended from the heavens and gave gifts to her followers. To us, the moonkin, she gave the gift of balance: power to manipulate it, duty to maintain it, and knowledge to understand it. And so we walk through the world, Inside and Outside, working to maintain the balance in all its ways and forms.” Elias nodded, saying nothing.
“We do not work alone, but in packs of five – always five. One for each face that the Moon shows to us: the full moon, the gibbous moon, the half moon, the crescent moon, and the new moon. As one flows into the other, each a different way of seeing the same thing, so the pack is one and we all work together. And tonight is the gibbous moon, Rufio’s moon, which shall pass from him to you when you accept the Moon as your mother and the Dragon as your father.”
“It seems a little weird that a ‘virgin’ can be a mother,” Elias said, narrowing his eyes. Uma shrugs.
“She did not bear you, she only becomes your mother in spirit. And she is gone, at any rate, so you really don’t need to worry yourself about the particulars. But this is our history, our tradition, and you must know it if you are to be one of us.” Elias nods again, saying nothing.
“Every moonkin has the Moon as her mother,” Uma continues, “But each pack must seek out a powerful spirit in the Wild for a father. Ours has had Father Dragon for longer than any of us has been alive – in fact, Father Dragon is older than the first of the moonkin, and has seen even gods rise and fall in his time. He is wise, and powerful, and works to maintain the balance himself. We are fortunate to have a territory with such a spirit as him.”
“So,” Elias said, after a pause, “I take it that when a god dies, its stuff stays around?”
“Yes,” Uma said, “The gods do not sustain the world, they feed off it. Just as your epiphany spirit was fed by your epiphany, so the god of war, for instance, was fed by wars. Kill War, and wars do not stop – the spiritual energy just goes to lesser war spirits instead. The gods were, in a way, like very powerful spirits.”
“What set them apart,” Elias asked. Uma shrugged her shoulders.
“That – I don’t know,” she said after a moment.
Silence hung heavy in the air as the six walked.
“Worship,” Tajo said at last. “You do something in the name of the war god, you fight a war for War’s sake, it draws power from that. More than a war for land or money or resources. That’s an act of worship. Lesser spirits – even our Father Dragon – worship does nothing for them. They have to hunt under their own power. Gods were beings that could feed off of worship alone. That’s why it was so important to them, why they were so jealous, so petty.”
“I learn something new every day from this guy,” Uma said with a nod.
“So, wait,” Elias said, “You said earlier that the Moon gave gifts ‘to us, the moonkin,’ like there was some other gift she gave to someone else.”
Uma nodded. “You listen well,” she said with a smile. “The gift of balance was actually the second gift she gave to mortals – the first was the sanguine gift, because she asked a mortal what he wanted and he said ‘power’. And so the bloodkin came to be.”
“Bloodkin,” Elias asked. “Like, vampires or something?”
“Yes,” Uma said, “Like vampires or something. She gave them power over blood, but also a craving for it – you see, the Virgin is the goddess of not only the Moon, but also of blood. But the bloodkin betrayed her in their lust for power, and so she cursed them to walk only under the Moon so that she could better keep an eye on them.”
“Uh-huh,” Elias grunted. That was a little much to swallow. But then, here he was, walking hand-in-hand with her on another plane, about to go talk to a giant flaming spirit dragon. So maybe his Bullshit Meter needed to be recalibrated. “And so I suppose there are other kin for other gods?”
“Not sure,” Uma said with a shrug. “Maybe. Probably. But these days, we only know of ourselves, the moonkin, and the others, the bloodkin, for certain. The gods have been gone for so long, and we kin tend not to advertise our presence. There’s just no telling.”
Elias nodded, digesting what he had been told, and the six walked in silence for some moments more. Something was gnawing at him, begging to be put together – but it seemed almost too obvious.
“So,” he said at last, “All this moon stuff. And the vampires. Blood and the Moon and all that. Are you – will I be – ?”
“Yes,” Uma said with a nod, as he trailed off. “A werewolf, ‘or something’,” she finished with a wry grin. “We have the power to change our shape. We don’t use it often, though – and we don’t have the fabled allergy to silver.”
“Really,” Elias asked with a chuckle. “So werewolves and vampires are real, but silver allergies aren’t. Funny how that works out.”
“Think about it,” Uma said. “You’re a medieval monster hunter. You’ve had some success, despite the inherent dangers of your career. You manage to kill a monster or two, using a weapon in the shape of a cross or with silver filigree, because humans tend to be superstitious and think that some fancy shit can’t hurt and maybe it’s magic and it’ll help. Yeah?”
“I’m with you,” Elias replied.
“So you down your first monster. Your weapon looks fancy. People take note of it, because they couldn’t see your technique in the fight – they weren’t there. What gets the credit? The lifelong training you’ve had? The bit of luck that came your way? Or the silver filigree, plain as a red herring?”
“I see,” Elias said with a nod. “No, we’ve had a lot of dumb myths. Dumb myths about secret societies – not that much of a leap.” He paused and stroked his chin in thought, staring up at the stars and what was soon to become his very own moon. “So I’m guessing the Moon doesn’t force you to change, either? And I’ll bet you don’t turn each other with a bite? Seems like either of those would’ve outed you long ago.” Uma smiled and breathed deeply before answering.
“Good guesses,” she said, “On both counts. You’re catching on.”
Elias nodded and grinned with satisfaction. Looking ahead, there was a chain link fence with barbed wire strung along the top. Beyond that, the sharp drop into the bowl-shaped crater below the dragon. Carter turned to Tajo.
“Handle it,” he said. The old man nodded in reply. “And quickly,” Carter added. Tajo looked over his shoulder, his face neutral, and met Carter’s eyes before giving him a slow nod. The shaman placed his hands over the links. Something seemed to shimmer in the air before passing from Tajo to the fence, and its spirit became more vibrant. The links rattled, though Elias felt no wind.
“Let us pass,” Tajo said, “And you will have that much again.” The links rattled once more, then a second time, and then – they unwound. The six of them passed through the new opening, which knitted itself shut behind them.
“What was that,” Elias asked Uma, as they walked through hand-in-hand.
“Everything has a spirit,” Uma said, “And those spirits are made of a sort of energy. Part of our gift, to manipulate the balance, is that we can commune with the spirits of all things. We can transfer our energy to them, or take their energy from them. This has a consequence on the Outside, of course – the health of the spirit and the strength of the material object are one and the same – but we are also gifted with understanding of this balance.” Elias looked at her queerly. “You’ll have a better idea, once we’ve initiated you. For now, watch your step.”
Willy made his way down the bowl of the crater first, surfing almost carelessly down the slope until he was able to take it at a brisk run, then easing himself to a slow jog several hundred feet below. Carter followed after him, sliding from handhold to handhold and taking several times as long before he reached a slope he could walk with ease. Tajo went next, moving with a grace that seemed to defy his apparent age, following roughly the path that Carter had taken. Rufio followed, grunting and straining with the effort, but never faltering.
“I’m not so sure I can handle this,” Elias said, as the others made their way down the crater with apparent ease.
“Just hold on to my hand,” Uma assured him. “You’ll be fine.”
As Rufio leveled out his stride, Elias nodded in an effort to boost his confidence. “OK, yeah, if he can make it in his state, then I think I can make it with you holding my hand.” Uma gave him a scolding look. “What? Did I say something wrong?” Her face flashed a scowl before she spoke.
“He’s burning his soul just to stay standing,” she said. “He’s gonna die tonight. That’s why we’re able to bring you in. There can only be five.”
“Whoah,” Elias said, “I didn’t mean – I mean – I wasn’t trying to make light of it. Of his death. Look.” He shook his head, composed himself. “I’m sorry. OK? You’re right. I wasn’t thinking.”
“OK,” Uma said, her jaw set. “OK,” she repeated. Then, her grip tightening on Elias’ hand, she pulled him toward the lip of the crater as she jumped down.
Elias wasn’t about to let go – he hadn’t been taught how to travel between the Inside and Outside himself, and so didn’t know what would happen if they broke their grip – and so he followed Uma over the edge. From her perspective, it was like a vertical waltz: she would swing him around, then pitch over him, then swing him around again before pitching over him once more. From Elias’ perspective, it was much more frantic and terrifying: he would be swung down and around, then up into freefall, then Uma would vault over him to the next handhold as he accelerated downward, his heart rate seeming to quicken with his downward velocity. Elias knew, as he had visited the museum at the crater’s northern edge, that the impact site was some fifty thousand years old. Thus, any large and prominent rocks would likely be reliable handholds – they weren’t going anywhere. The obvious conclusion did nothing to reassure him, however, as he felt the rocky soil spill away from him with his frantic scrabbling.
And finally, it all came to a scraping, stumbling halt. For Elias, at any rate. He was visibly shaken, his breath coming fast and ragged, as he doubled over once he regained his footing. Uma stood tall next to him, all six feet of her, staring down at the man who she held by the hand as he regained his breath and composure.
Finally, Elias rose to his feet, looking Uma in the eye, his breath even once more.
“Apology accepted,” she says with a nod. Elias goes wide-eyed, inhales sharply, then catches himself and forces a slow nod.
A great rumble, like the sound of thunder, fills the air and shakes Elias to his bones. He looks to the dragon, and sees that it has come to something of a rest above them: its long, serpent-like body coils and courses behind, but its head is unquestionably oriented toward the six of them. The corners of its mouth are upturned, as if in a smile – it must have been chuckling.
“Such fun to watch my children play,” the dragon says. Its voice is booming and powerful, but its tone has a windy, striated quality to it. Like it’s whispering. Elias wonders what its roar would sound like.
“Father Dragon,” Carter says, bowing his head and thumping his fist twice over his heart. The others repeat the salute. Elias notices that other, smaller dragons are flitting to and fro throughout the crater and between the ever-changing passages formed by the dragon’s undulating body – they range from about the size of a large dog to roughly the length of a bus.
“So this is your chosen one,” the dragon whispers. When its eyes are fully upon him, scrutinizing him, Elias manage he can actually feel the heat of its gaze. He stands tall, knowing that this creature is well beyond him, but not shying away from its greatness. “You have chosen well. And you, Rufio?”
“I’ve made my peace,” Rufio says, raising his face and straightening his posture. “I’m ready.”
“Indeed, you are,” the dragon replies. “But for what?”
“The fire,” Rufio says. “I’d rather die pure tonight than live another day like this. I’m done.”
The dragon closes its eyes and nods. “Very well,” it says at last. “Then let us tarry no longer, and rid your spirit of this accursed venom once and for all.”
Rufio nods, and the other five step away from him. Quite far, in fact. The dragon’s head rears back, its inhalation like a strong wind even from several dozen paces off. Rufio closes his eyes, spreads his hands, and lifts his face skyward. There is a deep whump! sound, and his body is engulfed in a torrent of spectral fire. Curiously, rather than concealing him, the flame appears to reveal him: a great black clot surrounding his heart, with tendrils spreading all through his body, bubbles and boils off. But so, too, does his flesh.
At the end, not even ash is left, only Rufio’s scorched and smoking bones.
Tajo sets about gathering the bones into a leather satchel. Carter and Willy set out roughly for where the small bones of his hands were blown, Uma for his feet. Elias reaches for a bone, but Uma stops him.
“No,” she says. “Not yet.” She places the small bones into something of a neat pile, then fans out to search for others, finding them by the telltale smoke rising off them. The process takes several long minutes.
“Willy,” she says at last, “Would you kindly bring me a femur?” Willy nods and takes it from Tajo as he is gathering the last of the small bones into his satchel. “Thanks. Hold it for me?”
He holds it sideways in front of her, and she takes one of Rufio’s metatarsals in hand. Holding it like a pencil, she scratches some runes into the sooty outer layer, revealing the pale bone beneath. Elias watches in macabre fascination as the runes glow a dull, pale blue which brightens with the completion of the final symbol.
“Thanks, hon,” she says as she sets the metatarsal down near the small pile of foot bones. Taking the runed femur from Willy, she draws a large circle on the ground by walking around Elias, who spins in place. “OK, Elias,” she says to him, the circle complete and glowing blue itself, “I’m going to let go of your hand now. As long as you stay in this circle, and don’t break it, you’ll be fine. Capisce?”
“Yeah, I capisce,” he answers. She lets go, and steps carefully over the glowing border. She then takes the metatarsal bone again and starts to draw more symbols in the ground at various points around the circle. These, too, emit the same pale glow, brightening as Uma finishes and steps back to appraise her work. Elias’ head is full of questions – What happened with Rufio just now? Is there a “werewolf Heaven”? How do these symbols work? – but the shaman-in-training is clearly concentrating, and he doesn’t want to disrupt her.
Tajo approaches, Carter and Willy behind him, and begins to check Uma’s work himself. He walks around the circle, staring for a moment at each of five sets of symbols, nodding periodically.
“Good,” he says at last, nodding to Uma. “Now the last part.”
She nods, puts her thumb in her mouth, and presses it hard against one of her canines. She feels the skin break and blood begin to flow. The other three have each taken a place at one of the rune clusters, leaving two empty. Uma holds the knuckle of her index finger to the pad of her thumb to help the blood well up and drip, making a red circle in the dust around one of the unoccupied clusters. Then she steps up to Elias, takes his head in her hand, and draws a small circle on his forehead with her bleeding thumb. She then steps gingerly out and takes her place at the edge, like the others.
“Father Dragon,” she says, “Watch over us as we welcome Elias into our pack. Open his eyes, fill him with your knowledge, and make him one of us.”
The dragon stares at Elias, speaks to him without moving its mouth:
Pathfinder. Woodcarver. Truthseeker. This is your true name. Your eyes are opened.
And so they are. A flood of awareness washes over Elias; he feels lightheaded for a moment, and stumbles before falling to a knee. He knows – knows – that the story Uma told him is true: that the Virgin Moon once gave mortals the gift of balance, and that gift has now been passed on to him. He can feel it, surely as he can feel his own body. He can feel that he is on the Inside of the world, he can feel the energy coursing through him and all things. What’s more, he knows the way between the Inside and the Outside now; he knows how to manipulate the flow of energy through himself, how to bend it in the world, how to disrupt it in others. It’s plain as day, as if he had just learned to wiggle his ears and thought, Oh! That’s how I do it!
Elias opens his eyes. Standing to his feet, he looks on his pack with new vision. He sees the symbols again, and has a raw, visceral grasp of their meaning: at Carter’s feet, the full moon; at his unoccupied spot, the gibbous moon; at Uma’s feet, the half moon; at Tajo’s feet, the crescent moon; and at Willy’s feet, the new moon. The other symbols surrounding the moon signs are harder to make out, but they fill him with emotions and suggestions, things that might be and could be.
He looks at his Father Dragon, sees the swell of pride in its expression, and smiles back. He has a family – parents who are alive, siblings who he talks to, cousins and such who he catches up with at major holidays – but he knows that he has a new family now. A different family. A different kind of family.“Welcome to the pack,” Carter says, interrupting the silence and clapping Elias on the shoulder. “You’re probably gonna wanna stop shaving.”